Nayanika speaks to TNM on how Shakuntala Devi’s story impacted her, and how it remains relevant even today.

Actor Vidya Balan and the writer of her film Shakuntala Devi Nayanika Mahtani standing arm in arm and smiling
Flix Interview Friday, July 24, 2020 - 10:53

The Vidya Balan-starrer Shakuntala Devi is easily one of the most anticipated films at the moment. And what sets the Anu Menon directorial apart – by the looks of the trailer – is that we’ll meet the Bengaluru-born mathematical genius not just for her arithmetic prowess, but also through the lens of her aspirations and relationships.

The film promises a deeper look, especially into her relationship with her daughter, Anupama Banerji, whose role is being played by Sanya Malhotra.

TNM interviewed Nayanika Mahtani, co-writer of the film, and one among many women of the crew, on what we can expect from Shakuntala Devi, how the story impacted her, and how it may affect the people who watch it. Here are edited excerpts.

How did your association with the film Shakuntala Devi happen? And what made you choose this particular story?

I have always believed that stories choose their tellers and their timing. When I was about six years old, Shakuntala Devi came to my school in Kolkata to demonstrate her exceptional mathematical skills. I clearly remember that performance – she seemed like a magician pulling numbers out of a hat, to produce answers to ridiculously complicated questions. I vividly recall how she had us in splits when she told off our headmistress for her maths not being up to the mark. Both she and her show have stayed with me over the years.

When I became an author (after many years in investment banking), her story was one that I really wanted to tell – simply because I thought it would be refreshing to tell a story where the hero is an Indian woman born in the 1920s who loves numbers and inspires millions. As it happened, my director friend Anu Menon (who has co-written the story and screenplay with me) was also interested in doing a film on her.

We discovered that Shakuntala Devi’s daughter also happened to live in London where Anu and I were based, and that she was looking to tell her mother’s story. It was as if the stars had aligned – to have all three of us – all in the same city – all looking to tell Shakuntala Devi’s story at the same time.

Did you have a chance to speak to many people who knew Shakuntala while researching? What was your first impression of her, and did that change while and after writing for the film?

Our main collaborator was Shakuntala Devi’s daughter, Anupama Banerji. We had extensive meetings with her and her husband Ajay over almost three years as the script took shape. It was what we found in the course of these meetings that made us decide to tell the story through the prism of a mother-daughter relationship.

My initial impression of Shakuntala Devi was of her being this ‘mathemagician’ and ‘human computer’. However, after meeting her daughter, we got to know her not just as a celebrated math prodigy but as a person – and what we found, made her story even more compelling, relatable and inspirational. What I was really drawn to, not just as a storyteller but also as a daughter and a mother, was the fact that Anupama’s intent was not to glorify her mother but to tell an authentic story of her life, warts and all. And what a life it was!

For here was a woman who unapologetically lived life on her terms, who despite having grown up in adverse circumstances never played the victim, who made the most of her talent and became a world-renowned name, who wanted to have it all and saw nothing wrong in wanting a life outside of being a mother, who owned her flaws, and who was a feminist without fanfare, far ahead of her time.

What also made the story and screenplay so much fun to write was that she had a wicked sense of humour and an insatiable appetite for life. She was an author (of subjects as varied as murder mysteries, maths puzzles, homosexuality and cooking) and an astrologer. She dabbled in politics, loved traveling, learning new languages and meeting new people. She was passionate about music and dance. She was anything but the stereotypical math genius.

The trailer gives us a glimpse into Shakuntala and her daughter Anupama’s relationship, and her struggles with social expectations from mothers. How do you think those struggles remain relevant today?

I think those struggles are still very relevant. Even today, many of us struggle to balance the demands of motherhood and our careers – and this was part of the reason we felt this story needed to be told. There is such a huge societal expectation for mothers to be these paragons of perfection for their families, often at the cost of their own dreams. Mothers who put themselves or their aspirations or careers ahead of what their family wants, are invariably branded selfish. Most portrayals of mothers in Hindi cinema perpetuate these societal expectations – placing a mother on an altar and making motherhood synonymous with sacrifice. It seems an unfair burden for women to carry.

As a mother of two daughters, I believe we need more stories like this that celebrate a woman who unapologetically chased her dreams. Hopefully, her story will inspire other women to do so too, without the burden of guilt and feeling like we’ve let our family down.

In my career as an investment banker, I’ve encountered the “boys’ club” on several occasions, in subtle and overt ways. I’m sure most women have encountered it, in some shape or form. I can imagine how hard it must have been for Shakuntala Devi 70 years ago, when she embarked on her career in the West; an Indian woman in the then very white male-dominated arena of mathematics. But she didn’t let that stop her. In fact, she never let her gender or ethnicity define how she lived her life. She just went ahead, lived it and showed the way, and did so with élan.

A lot has been said and written about Shakuntala Devi in the past. What do you think will set apart this film and how it tells her story?

I think what’s been written about her so far has mostly been about her phenomenal achievements such as her entering the Guinness Book of World Records for mentally multiplying two 13-digit numbers in record time at the Imperial College, London or deriving the 23rd root of a 201-digit number faster than a computer could. What sets this story apart is that it is told through the lens of a mother-daughter relationship – it humanises the genius and we can all relate to the story in a very real way.

Do you think women today will still relate to Shakuntala’s story? Did you relate to her?

I think women will certainly relate to this story. I have not only related to Shakuntala’s story but have been blown away by her indomitable spirit – she’s left me with no excuses to moan about things not going my way. And while I may not have experienced the problems of being a genius, I certainly relate to her as a mother and a daughter – and I’m sure many others will too. I should add that this story also has some amazing men.

Will the film delve into what motivated her to write The World of Homosexuals – her relationship with her husband?

Yes, it most certainly will.

What’s next for you? Any more books or film projects that you’re working on?

I’m working on my next book for Penguin Random House and also on a couple of web series for digital platforms.

Shakuntala Devi releases on Amazon Prime Video on July 31. 

Read: Only Vidya Balan could have played Shakuntala Devi: Anu Menon interview

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